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Overboard: Holding the Course

Does everybody know the standard protocol for dealing with one of the most serious boating emergencies?

When there are three or more people on a boat and one of them falls overboard, everyone who is not directly responsible for steering must take a position within sight of the helm and point steadily toward the person in the water. A rescue is possible even when the victim has started to go under, but not if no one marks - and holds - the spot.

Flotation is imperative as well, and if the victim has no vest, throw a boat ring, cushion or other buoyant object within easy reach, ideally with a line tied to the boat. You don't want to hit the person with a thrown object or with the boat, so approach cautiously - and don't attempt recovery near a turning prop.

If your boat has a GPS or LORAN, mark your position or press the MOB button.

The Coast Guard on Cape Cod had an interesting overboard call a few years ago from a yacht about 150 miles SW of Nantucket. A retired couple were taking turns at the helm, and when the husband came on deck after a 4-hour nap, he found no sign of his wife.

Rather than come about and attempt to retrace his course, he had the presence of mind to leave things just as they were - including the autopilot. An Air/Sea Search & Rescue Falcon was dispatched within minutes, and after picking up the yacht on radar the navigator computed its set and drift.

They backtracked almost 30 miles until they found the 62-year-old woman, in her orange life vest, waving a happy welcome. It's a fair bet that if the husband had broken his course in an attempt to find her himself, neither he nor the Coast Guard would have been successful.

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